Castillo: Teachers deserve applause — and a raise plan with real funding

At a spelling bee at Zavala Elementary School in McAllen long ago, I stood in front of our hushed fifth-grade classroom, all eyes on me. My stomach bounced around in my throat, but I was cocky, too. After all, I consistently scored in the top 1 percent nationally in spelling aptitude tests then.

But a spelling bee was new territory for me and my barrio classmates — and after what seemed like an unnerving eternity, it was at last my turn.

And I whiffed.

As I began the long, slow walk back to my desk, I saw my teacher’s reaction — a mix of disbelief and disappointment and a vague head shake indicating Linda Unland expected much more from me.

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Great teachers are like that. They push us and inspire us. They see our promise and lift us up. I have no doubt you know a few who touched your life in small but meaningful, maybe even life-changing, ways.

Yet, for all they do for us, public schoolteachers often are underappreciated and underpaid, many of us would agree. Count Gov. Greg Abbott among them.

As lawmakers gather Tuesday in Austin for a special legislative session, the governor is calling for a $1,000 salary increase for Texas’ public schoolteachers. A worthy call, many would say. The only problem is Abbott isn’t providing money to foot the bill. Instead, he wants legislation that reprioritizes how schools spend money and how administrators hire and retain teachers.

In other words, the governor’s mandate is unfunded, leaving local school districts with the task of figuring out how to pay.

Maybe it’s not a bad idea for some school districts to rethink how they spend their money, but that’s probably not an option for districts already struggling financially. If forced to comply with a state-mandated teacher salary increase, some of the state’s poorest districts might have to cut funding for teachers and educational programs, teachers groups warn.

In June, the Austin school board approved a 1.5-percent salary increase in the 2017-18 budget for all full-time and part-time employees at a cost of $8.5 million. An unfunded mandate to raise teacher salaries by $1,000 would cost Austin ISD about $5.9 million if lawmakers preclude applying the locally approved salary increases to the mandate, according to the school district.

HOW WE GOT HERE: Lt. Gov. Patrick offers to boost teacher pay; teacher groups dubious.

That potential blow is on top of the $534 million the Austin district is expected to fork over in recapture payments to help the state fund property-poor schools — an amount higher than for any other Texas school district, by the way.

As lawmakers convene for the special session, they should consider that a plurality of Texas voters think the state isn’t spending enough on public and higher education, according to a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. But you might not know this given the state Republican leadership’s hyperfocus on telling local governments how to tax, how to annex, how to police their public bathrooms, even delving into whether cities like Austin can protect trees. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick seems determined on passing legislation cracking down on transgender-friendly bathroom policies. Who knew this was such an urgent, drop-everything priority?

Meanwhile, efforts to pump more than $1 billion into public schools failed during the regular legislative session. A packed special session agenda contains several education bills. Among them, Abbott wants legislators to pass a bill to create a commission to study school finance reform, not to act on it.

Many, if not most, Texans can get behind rewarding teachers with pay raises — and Abbott was right to make the issue one of his priorities for the special session. But a state mandate with no money behind it isn’t the way. It’s time the state gets serious about education and school finance — and it can start here.

Thankfully, some lawmakers are trying. Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, has filed two bills, including one that would fund the salary increases with $1 billion from general revenue. Another bill would use the so-called rainy day fund, which Abbott and Patrick have been loath to tap.

TEXAS LEGISLATURE: Lawmakers propose reining in health costs for Texas retired teachers.

Our public schoolteachers are unsung heroes.

In expecting more from me, Linda Unland inspired me to demand more from myself. Over the nearly half century since that spelling bee in the fifth grade, Linda has been a dear friend, in no small measure because I count her among the small group of people in my life who saw my potential before I did — and who set me on a course to succeed.

That’s what great teachers do. They deserve our gratitude, not unfunded mandates and interim studies. Texas lawmakers should do right by them.

Juan Castillo is the American-Statesman’s Viewpoints editor. Contact him at 512-445-3667.

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